Chapter XI. Aaron Woodward's Visit
 

Puzzled and dismayed, I made a rapid search of my clothes-- first one pocket and then another. It was useless. Beyond a doubt the statement was nowhere about my person.

I was quite sure it had not been taken from me. Strange as it may seem, neither Parsons nor Booth had searched me. Perhaps they deemed it useless to take away the possessions of a poor country boy. My jack-knife and other odds and ends were still in their accustomed places.

"It's gone!" I gasped, when I was certain that such was a fact.

"Gone?" repeated Kate.

"Yes, gone, and I don't know where. They didn't take it from me. I must have lost it."

"Oh, Roger, and it was so important!"

"I know it, Kate. It must have dropped from my pocket down at the tool house. Perhaps if I go down I can find it."

"Go down?" she queried.

"Oh, I forgot I was a prisoner."

"Never mind, Roger. I'll go down myself."

"Aren't you afraid?"

"Not now. I wouldn't have been of this Stumpy only he came on me so suddenly. I'll go at once."

"You'd better," said a voice behind her. "Your five minutes is up, Miss Kate." And Booth appeared at the head of the stairs and motioned her down.

"Good-by, Roger. I'm so sorry to leave you here alone."

"It's not such a dreadful place," I rejoined lightly. "If you discover anything, let me know at once."

"Be sure I will." And with this assurance Kate was gone.

I was as sorry for her as I was for myself. I knew all she would have to face in public-- the mean things people would say to her, the snubbing she would be called on to bear.

The loss of the statement rendered me doubly downhearted. Oh, how much I had counted on it, assuring myself over and over again that it would surely clear my father's name!

Hardly had my sister left me than there were more voices below, and I heard Mr. Woodward tell Booth that he had an order from Judge Penfold for a private interview with me.

"Better go right upstairs then, Mr. Woodward," was the jailer's reply. "He's all alone."

I wondered what the merchant's visit could portend, but had little time for speculation.

"So, sir, they've got you fast," said Mr. Woodward sharply as he faced me. "Fast, and no mistake."

"What do you want?" I demanded boldly, coming at once to the front.

"What do I want?" repeated the merchant, looking behind him to make sure that Booth had not followed him. "What do I want? Why, I want to help you, Strong, that's what I want."

I could not help but smile. The idea of Mr. Woodward helping any one, least of all myself!

"The only way you can help me is to set me free," I returned.

"Oh, I can't do that. You are held on the Canby charge solely."

"But you told me you wanted me arrested."

"So I did, but I intend to give you a chance-- that is, if you will do what I want."

"But why did you want me arrested?"

"You know well enough, Strong."

"On the contrary, I haven't the least idea."

"Stuff and nonsense. See here, if you want to get off without further trouble, hand over those papers."

"What papers?"

"The papers you took last night," replied Mr. Woodward, sharply.

I was truly astonished. How in the world had he found out about the statement dropped by Stumpy? Was it possible there had been a meeting between the two? It looked like it.

"I haven't got the papers," I rejoined.

"Don't tell me a falsehood sir," he thundered.

"It's true."

"Do you deny you have the packet?"

"I do."

"Come, Strong, that story won't answer. Hand it over."

"I haven't it."

"Where is it?"

"I lost it," I replied, before I had time to think.

"Lost it!" he cried anxiously.

"Yes, sir," I returned boldly, resolved to make the best of it, now the cat was out of the bag. "Either that or it was stolen from me."

He looked at me in silence for a moment.

"Do you expect me to believe all your lies?" he demanded finally.

"I don't care what you believe," I answered. "I tell the truth. And one question I want to ask you, Aaron Woodward. Why are you so anxious to gain possession of Nicholas Weaver's dying statement?"

The merchant gave a cry of astonishment, nay, horror. He turned pale and glared at me fiercely.

"Nicholas Weaver's dying statement!" he ejaculated. "What do you know of Nicholas Weaver?"

Now I had spoken I was almost sorry I had said what I had. Yet I could not but notice the tremendous effect my words had produced.

"Never mind what I know," I replied. "Why do you take an interest in it?"

"I? I don't know anything about it," he faltered. "I hardly knew Nicholas Weaver."

"Indeed? Yet you want his statement."

"No, I don't. I don't know anything about his statement," he continued doggedly. "I want my papers. I don't care a rap about any one else's."

It was now my turn to be astonished. Evidently I had been on the wrong track from the beginning.

"If you don't want his statement, I'm sure I don't know what you do want," I rejoined, and I spoke the exact truth.

"Don't tell lies, Strong. You know well enough. Hand them over."

"Hand what over?"

"The packet of papers."

"I haven't any packet."

"Strong, if you don't do as I demand, I'll send you to prison after your father."

"I can't help it. I haven't any papers. If you don't believe me, search me."

"Where have you hidden them?"

"I never had them to hide."

"I know better, sir, I know better," he fumed.

I made no reply. What could I say?

"Do you hear me, Strong?"

For reply I walked over to the slatted window and began to whistle. My action only increased the merchant's anger.

"For the last time, Strong, will you give up the papers?" he cried.

"For the last time, Mr. Woodward, let me say I haven't got them, never had them, and, therefore, cannot possibly give them up."

"Then you shall go to prison, sir. Mark my word,-- you shall go to prison!"

And with this parting threat the merchant hurried down the loft steps and rapped loudly for Booth to come and let him out.

When he was gone, I sat down again to think over the demand he had made upon me. To what papers did he refer? In vain I cudgelled my brain to elicit an answer.

He spoke about sending me to prison, and in such tones as if it were an easy matter to do. Assuredly he must have some grounds upon which to base so positive an assertion.

No doubt he was now on his way to Judge Penfold's office to swear out the necessary papers. I did not know much about the law, but I objected strongly to going to prison. Once in a regular lockup, the chances of getting out would be indeed slim.

I reasoned that the best thing to do was to escape while there was a chance. Perhaps I was wrong in this conclusion, but I was only a country boy, and I had a horror of stone walls and iron bars.

Escape! No sooner had the thought entered my mind than I was wrapped up in it. Undoubtedly it was the best thing to do. Freedom meant not only liberty, but also a chance to hunt down John Stumpy and clear my father's name.

I looked about the loft for the best means of accomplishing my purpose. As I have said, the place was over a carpenter shop. The roof was sloping to the floor, and at each end was a small window heavily slatted.

The distance to the ground from the window was not less than fifteen feet, rather a long drop even if I could manage to get the slats loose, which I doubted, for I had no tools at hand.

I resolved to try the door, and was about to do so when I heard the bolts shoot back and Booth appeared.

For an instant I thought to trip him up and rush past him, but he stood on the steps completely blocking the way.

"All right, Roger?" he asked.

"Yes, sir."

"Quite com'table, boy?"

"As comfortable as any one could be in such a place," I rejoined lightly.

" 'Tain't exactly a parlor," he chuckled. "No easy chairs or sofys; but the food's good. I'm a-going to get it for you now. Then after that maybe the judge will call around. I'll bring the dinner in a minute."

He climbed downstairs, bolting the door after him.

In five minutes-- or ten at the most-- I knew he would be back. After that there was no telling how long he would stay.

Now, therefore, was the proper time to escape, now or never!